It’s been just short of a day since I saw Arrival (2016) my first of this years Oscar bait, it’s too early to say what the predictions will be beyond Amy Adams‘s restrained performance as linguist Louise Banks whose recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) after the arrival of one of 12 vessel to appear from space. It sounds like any number of science fictions films that use this basic premise to stir up chaos, confusion and fear around the world. Naturally one land in the States, this time a field in Montana which naturally creates all the above emotions and hysteria in the media. I’m reminded of quite a few films that discuss these issues. I’d like to use this review to explain my thinking towards this one.
First we have Contact (1997) which takes the same tact, and even a female led which is even rarer in 1990’s cinema as it still is today. Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) and her team receive what is an alien transmission. The film’s built upon how we respond to that message, which becomes a massive plan for an interstellar craft that supposedly transport the one passenger to the aliens world. It became a film about science versus religion, who should meet the aliens, a person of faith or science, or failing that – passion. The world was and is waiting in both films for answers to come of those who are on the ground, with the clearance to understand what is going on. The public and political pressure in both films for answers varies. There are 12 vessel on our planets surface in Arrival that is making more of an impact, these outsiders who loom above their various location around the planet. Different nations responding in their own ways. Contact the process’s sped up, we have an answer (subverted by money) that leads to answers and further questions.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) maybe a strange entry, yes the one with the whales, however it was all about finding the appropriate way to respond to the message that was causing unspoken damage to the people of Earth in the 23rd century. As Spock rightly tells us “Only human arrogance would assume the message must be meant for man” of course that’s coming from an outsiders perspective, the alien looking in on another race, believing that the probe above Earth is transmitting to only humanoid life, when other intelligence live among us that we may not have considered, in the films case – hump-back whales. It was about finding a solution and the right method to respond to the message. In Arrival the messages meant for humanity, however it’s a longer time working on the method and language to communicate it. A language we understand to take the form of ink rings that are released, taking the form of mug rings that Louise works to decipher. The aliens (dubbed Abbot and Costello) are open to communication, they want to communicate, it takes another open and willing individual to take the time to do so. In 18 hour intervals she along with a team of soldiers and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) a scientist whose there to understand their technology, that’s after a clear line of communication is established, it takes more than a universal translator here.
Another more tenuous film is Independence Day (1996) when we have a great number of vessels appearing above the earths many capital cities. Ultimately it’s a blockbuster version of War of the Worlds when the alien visitors try to destroy us as they attempt an invasion, only to be defeated by the only weapon that we never considered – our atmosphere. Before the Will Smith lead invasion there is a mass sense of fear, hysteria as everyone rushes to find out what is going on. A formula that us repeated nearly every summer since at the cinema. However in Arrival that fear is more muted, the longer we wait for answers, we get riots as governments fail to provide answers. Scientists are finally able to go in and investigate, study and question what it before them. We have time to explore these minimal spaceships that are the nearest these scientist. It’s a barren ship devoid of what we would call a ship kitted with technology. Instead we have a tunnel and a glass wall that divides them from the aliens who they are talking to. For our protection or theirs?
Where the film comes into its own is the flashbacks to a time when Louise was a mother to a daughter who we learn in the first few minutes is lost to a terminal condition. However the more we see of the film, are these flashbacks actually just that, are the fragments from another life, one that is yet to be lived. Louise is emotionally affected by these images or memories. She appears to be a grieving mother throughout, has she experienced her own future before it has happened. The aliens seem to be a part of that in some way which I have never seen before. Reminding me of the Prophets found in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine who chose Commander Sisko to be their emissary, a connection to his own spatial dimension, his perception of time being different to the prophets.
This is one science fiction film that focuses more on the actions of humanity than those of the aliens who we do get to see enough of to understand who they possibly are. Special effects-wise it’s paired down to be just about the aliens and their vessels that loom large in the film even when they aren’t on-screen. We have a film that about the drama that unfolds away from the visitors, how we as a people are more likely to react. With a focus interestingly on China who have one in their back yard take a different tact when they have worked a response to their question – which could be similar to “What is your purpose?”. In the States to a point is led by the scientist, of course acting as advisers, but these are the true communicators who know what can be achieved.
Could this be a prediction of what is to come in the future if we are visited by aliens? It’s probable yet still fantastical with a lot of wonder and awe, this is not a summer blockbuster, its a thought provoking science fiction, not the shoot-em-up which is refreshingly rare and left me lost for breath at times. Its a human story essentially about letting yourself free to understand the unknown, putting up barriers only put your further away from understanding the unknown about others and yourself.